TAMPA — Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Thursday that the state will pay $1.4 billion to rebuild the West Shore interchange starting in 2023.
The mammoth undertaking will expand the footprint of the nexus that connects the Howard Frankland Bridge, Interstate 275, Tampa International Airport and the Veterans Expressway. The area has historically been one of the worst bottlenecks in the region.
“Driving through that is tremendously stressful on everybody,” said Beth Alden, executive director for Hillsborough’s Metropolitan Planning Organization. “Connecting these pieces is what it’s all about. And it shows that the state values Tampa Bay and Tampa Bay’s place in the overall state economy.”
Part of the reconstruction will add two toll lanes in each direction along with general purpose lanes that do not require a fee. The cost to drive in the toll lanes, which are also being added to I-275 and the Howard Frankland, will change based on the level of traffic.
Construction is expected to take between four and five years, said David Gwynn, the Florida Department of Transportation secretary for District 7, which covers Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties.
The announcement is the biggest piece so far in a multi-billion dollar plan to add toll lanes to Tampa Bay’s existing interstates.
“This is by far the biggest project District 7 has ever had,” Gwynn said. “I’m just proud of the whole region coming together and finding a project everyone could support.”
Work in Pinellas County’s Gateway area is already underway, with the toll lanes expected to open in two years, Gwynn said. Construction of a new span of the Howard Frankland Bridge, including toll lanes, will start next year, and money is already allotted for a similar project along I-275 from the south end of the bridge to Interstate 375 in St. Petersburg. That work is slated to begin in 2024.
The four projects total nearly $3 billion worth of highway expansion in less than a decade.
“This investment in our transportation infrastructure comes at an incredibly pivotal time for Tampa,” Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said. “I have stressed that one of my top priorities is to alleviate congestion while expanding alternative mobility options, and this investment to rework of the interchange will do just that.”
While the state’s efforts to add toll lanes has faced push back from some communities — most notably the neighborhoods surrounding downtown Tampa — the rebuild of the West Shore interchange has consistently received the most support from Tampa Bay leaders.
Elected officials with Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties signed on to support the new interchange as the top regional priority, and Gwynn said the district made the decision earlier this year to pursue money for the West Shore interchange before its more controversial Tampa counterpart.
“This is positive news for both sides of Tampa Bay,” St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said in a statement. “While we must remain focused on alternative and mass transit, reconstructing this interchange will be a boon to commerce and make life easier for residents and visitors. The future of St. Pete and Tampa has never been brighter.”
The rebuilt interchange will include more capacity and redesigned exits.
About 150,000 vehicles move through the interchange each day, according to traffic counts from Hillsborough’s transportation planning agency provided earlier this year.
Those vehicles on I-275 will have additional lanes as they drive through the interchange. The two lanes that go north to downtown Tampa from the Howard Frankland Bridge will expand to three. The same is true of the southbound lanes in that area.
Perhaps the biggest change will come to those who use the interchange to get to the airport or the Veterans Expressway from Pinellas County. Currently, one lane carries all that traffic. Once the interchange is complete, drivers can choose from one toll lane or two general purpose lanes.
The path of traffic connecting State Road 60 to I-275 northbound will also look different. The existing loop ramp will be replaced by a flyover, meaning drivers have a direct connection on a dedicated ramp above the interstate as opposed to the big circle they currently drive.
Traffic patterns coming through the West Shore area to and from I-275 will change as the department moves the frontage road to Reo Street. The new design seeks to improve the safety of turns onto the interstate from Reo by slowing speeds and reducing conflict points where cars cross other traffic.
The state plans to open connections under the interstate so that Occident and Trask streets, each just to the west and east of West Shore Boulevard, can flow under the highway and offer more options for moving around the district.